25 May 2022

Thank you Dervla Murphy


On May 22nd, three days ago, Dervla Murphy died aged 90. In my wildest dreams, I wanted to live a life like hers, at least the cycling and travelling part. When I read her first book (Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a bicycle), my then bicycle, my only means of transport, was a Dutch High Nelly with three gears and a wonky handbrake and I found it most reassuring that Dervla, before she set off to India in the middle of winter had the gears dismantled from her bike (an Armstrong Cadet men's bicycle from the 1950s) because she did not want to be bothered by cumbersome repairs and no spare parts along the way.

A couple of times, we drove past and once, actually stood in front of the gate to her house in Lismore, but  decided that it wasn't the proper thing to do, call in uninvited on a rainy Sunday. Her dogs went ballistic with barking, so we left in a hurry. I do wish I could have met her in person.

In Ireland, most people know her, know of her. I am always surprised that this is not the case elsewhere.

When we decided - on a whim, literally - to move to paradise, this small African country, with a five year old child, two tea chests of basics, mostly books and a sewing machine, eyes wide open and utterly clueless, I read On a shoestring to Coorg, her account of travelling and living in Southern India with her five year old daughter, penniless and with only a small backpack, and felt completely prepared. In fact, I was going to reduce the stuff we had packed but R stopped me (he had been working in Africa for a couple of years before we met and knew the drill).

This is from Eight feet in the Andes, her book of travelling in 1977 with her, by then, nine year old daughter and a mule from Ecuador to Cuzco. 

They have put down their tent for the night near Huamachucho, Peru, and Dervla has to get up at around midnight ("Nature called") and entranced by the moonlit night, writes in her diary:

. . . there was no stirring of a breeze, no whispers of running water: the stillness was so unflawed that it seemed the sovereign moon, floating high, must have put a spell on our whole world. . . . There is more to such experiences than visual beauty, necessary to mankind yet hard to put in words. It is the beauty of freedom: freedom from an ugly, artificial, dehumanising, discontented world in which man has lost his bearings. A world run by an alliance of self-hypnotised technocrats and profit-crazed tycoons who demand constant, meaningless change. A world where waste and greed are accepted - even admired - because our minds' manipulators have made frugality and moderation seem like failure in the Acquisition Game. . . . I know and have always known the we humans need to escape at intervals from that alien world which has so abruptly replaced the environment that bred us. We need to be close to, and opposed to, and sometimes subservient to, and always respectful of the physical realities of the planet we live on. We need to receive its pure silences and attend to its winds, to wade through its rivers and sweat under its sun, to plough through its sands and sleep on its bumps. Not all the time but often enough for us to remember that we are animals. Clever animals, yet ultimately dependent, like any animal, on the forces of Nature. Whole areas of one's humanity could become atrophied if one remained always within a world where motor-roads are more important than trees and speed is more important than silence.
She was exactly 25 years older than me, we share a birthday and she had a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis in the end. I have been calculating what my life could be like, another 25 years, maybe I can have that, as I already have the rheumatoid like disease.


am said...

Now I remember that I was introduced to Dervla Murphy here at your blog some time ago. I wasn't sure if I heard about her here or at Solitary Walker's blog, so I did some googling and found that her book, Full Tilt, was on your top 10 book list for Solitary Walker's blog years ago. Full Tilt is definitely on my next-books-to-read list. What a great inspiration she has been for you, as you have been cycling and living fully throughout your life.

NewRobin13 said...

I've never heard of her, but I love her writing. I love she sees and holds the world. Thank you for introducing me to her works. Hope all is well for you, Sabine.

Pixie said...

She sounds like an extraordinary woman. She was a single mother in Ireland in 1968, that in itself boggles the mind. I can't imagine being that free.

Ms. Moon said...

I think that she and Jane Goodall shared similar spirits.

ellen abbott said...

Of course, she's absolutely right. I sorely miss my river guide days when at least four times a year I would leave the madness of civilization and be at the mercy of nature.

Joared said...

What descriptive language and profound commentary. I wish you could have met her.

Anonymous said...

37paddington: Thank you for introducing me to Dervla. I am in awe of her. I’m off to find her bicycle odyssey and read it. What a bold, wise, intrepid soul. What must her daughter be like, to be raised by such a woman.